German Left’s Politics and Foreign Policy in the Election Year

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 12

German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama (see article above) replaces the language of diplomacy with the rhetoric of the German Left. By reaching out to recuperate its constituency, the open letter marks the start of the Social-Democrat Party’s (SPD) electoral campaign. Steinmeier’s SPD governs in a tension-filled coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU). Given the SPD’s receptiveness to Russian interests on some major issues of foreign policy and energy security, the 2009 general elections may define Germany’s course for the years ahead.

The former minister of foreign affairs (1998-2005), Joschka Fischer, a leading Green figure, addresses Russia’s challenge more candidly in his article “Russia in NATO / Finding Russia’s Place in Europe” (Sueddeutsche ZeitungThe Guardian, January 11). Fischer acknowledges the demise of the rule of law in Russia, its return to “Greater-Russia power politics,” and its goals to “weaken NATO, even roll back the alliance” and establish East European and Central Asian zones of Russian influence. At the same time, he postulates that the West needs Russia’s cooperation for addressing numerous regional conflicts (Iran, Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Korea) and global challenges (arms control, nuclear anti-proliferation, energy security, climate protection). In common with many (though not all) who subscribe to that postulate, Fischer suggests paying a geopolitical price for Russian cooperation on those “high-priority issues on the Western agenda.”

Fischer’s prescription consists of rewarding Russia with a “significantly enhanced role within NATO, including the prospect of full membership.” He lightly admits that “such a bold step would transform NATO. But it would transform Russia even more.” Given his and the Greens’ long-standing discomfort with NATO, the inclination to “transform” the alliance does not come as a surprise. Fischer does not explain how entry into the alliance could possibly “transform” Russia. Instead, he sketches an ideal post-modern situation in Europe with Russia in NATO: “Many strategic goals could be achieved: European security, resolution of neighborhood conflicts, energy security, arms reduction, nuclear non-proliferation, and more.”

On this basis Fischer welcomes Russia’s call to renegotiate Europe’s security system as an opportunity for defining Russia’s place within Europe. Thus, Fischer aligns himself with Steinmeier’s position on this decisive issue. Ironically, while Steinmeier’s open letter equates Russia with President Dmitry Medvedev, Fischer’s article refers to Russia and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin interchangeably. One says nothing critical about Russia’s internal and external policies while the other has something critical to say, however inconsequentially. Beyond such discrepancies, however, their common willingness to turn NATO into a subject of negotiations with Russia could seriously weaken the alliance.

As in 2002 and 2005, foreign policy and the related topic of energy security will play a major role in this year’s German elections. With Steinmeier challenging the CDU’s Merkel for the chancellorship, the SPD needs to recapture and hold the Leftist vote. Considerable numbers of SPD voters have defected to the radical party Die Linke (The Left) or are gravitating toward it, while the SPD’s own Left wing is disgruntled with the moderates in the party’s leadership. This situation predates the financial crisis and has intensified since the crisis hit.

Steinmeier’s long-time chief and mentor, Gerhard Schroeder, has demonstrated how to use foreign policy for winning a general election. Schroeder’s SPD and its pacifist Green allies achieved reelection narrowly in 2002 by mobilizing the Left through anti-U.S. rhetoric. The Bush administration’s policies facilitated such electoral tactics in Germany at that time. This year, with President Barack Obama taking office in Washington, Steinmeier has positioned himself as an Obama admirer in the open letter at the start of SPD’s campaign. But he has done so by interpreting and even transfiguring Obama in terms calculated to appeal to the leftist electorate, although Obama’s popularity is broad-based in Germany.

So long as the Obama honeymoon lasts (at least until the German-hosted NATO summit in April and possibly beyond) it makes sense for German politicians to be on his bandwagon. Steinmeier’s open letter, however, seeks to jump on the bandwagon with the U.S. president at the rhetorical level while a Russo-German special relationship develops at the operational level, with divisive effects on NATO and the EU.

The coming NATO summit co-hosted by Germany, growing challenges to energy security, and Steinmeier’s dual role as minister of foreign affairs and candidate for chancellor are thrusting foreign policy to the center stage of German politics in this election year. Meanwhile, the SPD is hemorrhaging on its left flank as a result of the economic recession. The party seems set to draw on the lessons of 2002, mobilizing to regain leftist support while maintaining correct relations with the United States this time and even trying to piggyback on Obama’s popularity if possible.